Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

A Profile of Boeing Starliner Flight Crew Operations Lead

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 8, 2016
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Credit: NASA

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Astronauts heading into orbit aboard a new generation of commercially developed spacecraft will read instruments on a tablet and count on only a few physical buttons and joysticks to fly to and rendezvous with the International Space Station.

These high-tech systems will not have rigid panels that stretch over several positions and house row-upon-row of switches, dials and readouts like those on the Apollo spacecraft and space shuttle.

About four years ago, a small team at Boeing, including Steve Gauvain, flight crew operations lead for the company’s CST-100 Starliner, started designing the control panel and crew interface to ensure that crew members would have the data they need.

Designing the control network and systems is the province of a team of engineers, and draws upon the expertise of Boeing teams from different specialties to make all the instruments work together.

“The thing that makes my job really fun is that there is a team that is really smart about the life support system, there is a team that is really smart about the electrical system,” Gauvain said.

“I’ve got a colleague who lives for relative navigation. I get to go and talk to these people every day. Then the science turns into an art form to take all that engineering data and make it greater than the sum of its parts. I’m an engineer with a little bit of an artistic side. In order to make a good display and something intuitive for people to use, you have to combine the science and art.”

The Starliner has about 30 displays crew members can navigate like a smart phone. The spacecraft has some switches, too, located in a wraparound console that the crew could access to perform critical tasks in the unlikely event of a computer or display problem.

Gauvain spent 15 years as a simulator engineer teaching astronauts the ins-and-outs of the space shuttle flight deck and how to handle emergency scenarios. Working on shuttle simulation scenarios gave Gauvain insight into what to offer Starliner crews so they know what is happening on their spacecraft quickly and can take action if necessary.

“Being able to observe that human behavior over a number of years showed me how astronauts break down situations and reassemble them in their head, and I tried to apply all those lessons learned to the Starliner cockpit,” Gauvain said.

Starliner crew interface designers also included two conventional joysticks.

“From a pilot’s perspective, we have two heritage hand controllers,” Gauvain said. “One is like a traditional airplane stick, to pitch and yaw and roll, and then we have a translational hand controller, because, unlike an airplane which only goes forward, when you come up to dock with the International Space Station, you need to be able to go forward or backward or side to side.”

The spacecraft is designed to fly itself through all phases of a mission, so unless an unexpected anomaly occurs, the astronauts won’t use the controllers.

“One of the nice things about the Starliner is that we have an automated vehicle, so for the most part, the automated flight computers will take control and ferry the crew from the ground to the station with minimal interaction,” Gauvain said.

“But there’s always the possibility for something to go wrong, so we want to make sure that the crew is aware and understands what the vehicle is doing at all times. That way, at any time they deem necessary, they can jump in and either correct a problem or perform a reconfiguration as they see fit.”

In September 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory on American-made human spaceflight systems. While Boeing produces the Starliner to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, SpaceX is working on its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

These commercially developed and maintained systems may open up low-Earth orbit flights to more people than ever before, eventually including tourists and scientists. Engineers had to keep various business models and scenarios in mind when designing their systems.

“We set out to make it simple, intuitive and easy to understand whether it was for the professional astronaut or the paying customer who wants to spend time in space doing somersaults and looking out the window,” Gauvain said.

Gauvain’s team was not limited to modeling a new cockpit; it also had to determine all the potential troubles a vehicle could have leading up to launch and during a mission.

“We took the base knowledge of 30 years operating the space shuttle and broke it down to understand how it could affect our spacecraft and how it could affect the space station,” Gauvain said. “There was a lot of analysis. Over the course of maybe a year-and-a-half we sat down with all those super smart people, and we formulated a set of responses that was the safest thing to do for the station and the crew.”

The Starliner is progressing through final development and manufacturing, while the NASA commercial crew astronauts practice mission phases with simulators.

“I can’t wait for someone to fly our system on a real flight and then come back and tell me what I can make better next time,” Gauvain said. “There definitely will be challenges, but it’s about rising to the challenge and beating the problem and get to flying, because that’s the goal.”